Prestigious Einstein Prize for Indian American professor Abhay Ashtekar

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Professor Abhay Ashtekar is set to receive the prestigious Einstein Prize conferred by the American Physical Society. This work was over four decades after he began his scientific engagement with gravitational science.

The prize for 2018, which carries an award of $10,000, is scheduled to be announced on October 23. Its citation reads: “For numerous and seminal contributions to general relativity, including the theory of black holes, canonical quantum gravity, and quantum cosmology.”

Ashtekar said, “The prize is special because is it the highest honour bestowed by APS in the broad area of gravitational science. The first Einstein prize was awarded jointly to Peter Bergmann and John Wheeler, who introduced general relativity to American universities by creating research groups. Perhaps because the first award often sets the tone, subsequent prizes have come to recognise ‘lifetime achievements’. So the news was deeply satisfying”.

Ashtekar’s passion for physical sciences started while he was in high school in India. He is a professor of physics, Evan Pugh Professor, Holder, Eberly Chair, and director of the Institute for Gravitation and the Cosmos at the Pennsylvania State University. What he found most remarkable was that unlike art and literature, which are “so tied to human conditions”, Newton’s laws transcend both. “It was striking to me that the same Newton’s laws are taught and admired in India as in China, Japan and the West.”

He explained gravity has two key features that other forces do not share. Unlike the weak and strong force, it is long-range and therefore key to the large-scale structures and phenomena. The electromagnetic force is also long-range. But because the  electric charge comes with both signs, the force can be both attractive and repulsive. Large bodies like the sun and planets are all electrically neutral and so they don’t exert any electromagnetic force on one another. The dominant force between such bodies is therefore gravitational.

After receiving his Ph.D. in 1974 from the University of Chicago, Ashtekar went on to hold influential positions in France, Canada and India. His biography on the National Academy of Sciences, to which he was elected a member in 2016, describes him as someone “best known for initiating the Loop Quantum Gravity programme by introducing new variables to simplify Einstein’s equations, for analyzing the very early universe using Loop Quantum Cosmology, and for his contributions to the study of the asymptotic structure of space-time and gravitational waves in full non-linear general relativity”.